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  • Writer's pictureJulian Molteno

Thinking vs Doing — expanded!


When I started iamprotein.co.uk in February of 2018, I was told that the posts ought to be short and to the point, otherwise readers would quickly lose interest. This was (and still is) very good advice, which I tried to follow, and my first dozen or so posts were indeed short and sweet. I soon found this enforced brevity constraining however, so began to write longer (and more self-indulgent!) posts — basically, I started to write just for my own pleasure — if people liked what I wrote, fine, if not, too bad.

With that in mind, I want to return to one of my first offerings, a post entitled “Thinking vs Doing”, where I briefly touch on the subject of how, broadly speaking, I separate all training movements into either “thinking” or “doing” exercises. In my effort to keep the original post short and punchy I kept the message pretty simple, but now I feel I want to expand a bit on the whole “thinking vs doing” concept.

Bodybuilders have never really had a reputation for subtlety. Most people think of bodybuilders, and of bodybuilding itself, as being pretty brainless and moronic. Bodybuilders can appear thuggish, and often seem to train in a mindless and monolithic sort of way, and sometimes

this is indeed the case. For any experienced trainer however, especially one who has given some thought to the structure of the workout — something that may initially appear basic and straightforward, could in reality be far more subtle and nuanced.

In a previous post, “Critical sets, Critical Reps”, I discuss the make-up of a well thought-out workout. What a workout consists of, and how it’s constituent parts all fit together to make up the complete whole. The basic building-block of a workout is a set, and as mentioned previously, I divide all sets up into two categories; thinking and doing.

Basically, big, compound exercises such as Bench Press, Deadlifts and Squats, etc., are “doing” exercises. Here we are concerned with moving a big weight from A to B. The way the muscles feel, whether they get a pump or stretch or squeeze — or not — is of no concern. This sort of movement has a big, strong, energetic, loud and brutal feel to it.

“Thinking” exercises are mostly isolation exercises, movements that focus primarily on one muscle group. These exercises are performed in a much more controlled and thoughtful manner. The weight used is not of primary importance, the feel is our priority. We are interested in the deep squeeze or long stretch.

To illustrate this difference in attitude and approach to the two types of exercise, let’s compare a Deadlift with a Stiff Leg Deadlift. To the uninitiated they appear to be reasonably similar exercises, but in reality, the way we think about, and perform them, could not be more different. The Deadlift is a pure power exercise, the entire emphasis is on strength, lifting as much weight as possible off the floor in as economically a manner as possible. The deadlift is performed quickly and explosively. The Stiff Leg Deadlift however, is the exact opposite. It is all about the feel, maximising the stretch in the hamstrings, the weight is less important and the movement is performed in a slower and more deliberate way. Crucially, with the Deadlift we try to make the movement as easy as possible, with the Stiff Leg, we try make it as hard as possible. In many ways that sums up the main difference between “doing” and “thinking” exercises.

Mostly, I like to deploy thinking vs doing exercises in a superset. Generally staring with the “thinking”, isolation exercise, followed by the compound “doing” exercise. One of my favourite examples of this would be a Dumbell Pullover followed by a Bench Press. The Dumbell Pullover stretches and contracts the pecs, pre-exhausting the chest, this movement is done carefully, slowly and thoughtfully. Then, on the Bench Press, we smash out some strong and energetic, power reps. We are not worried about the “feel”, we just want to move as heavy a weight as possible up off our chests.

Larry Scott — the first Mr Olympia and one of the first men to have muscular 20” arms — loved the Preacher Curl so much he wanted them to be called Scott Curls.

Another combination I enjoy is Preacher Curls supersetted with Standing Barbell Curls. The Preacher (or Scott Curl) reps are strict, tight, fairly short and fully under control, allowing you to focus on the contraction of your biceps, and feel the pump and pain of the squeeze. Then along comes the show-offey, big and noisy Barbell Curl! All energy and power and swing and bombast!! A complete contrast to the shy and retiring Preachers, this movement is all energy, we are not too concerned with how our arms feel when we curl, the emphasis here is all about smashing a big weight up and down!! The Preacher is tidy and precise, the Barbell Curl is messy and all over the place!

The strict Preacher vs the loose Barbell Curl — demonstrated here by the Great Man himself!

I have one last comment to make on the whole Thinking vs Doing situation. It may appear that “thinking” exercises are easier than “doing” ones, due to the differing characteristics of the two exercise types — “thinking” being controlled and strict and quiet, while “doing” is loose and fast and loud — but this is not the case. To understand why, we need to think of the difference between Effort vs Energy. I was chatting to Scott, an average client of mine, about Thinking vs Doing, and he came up with Effort vs Energy as another way to differentiate between, and understand the concept of, Thinking vs Doing. He said that “effort” was mental, and “energy” was physical. And he was spot-on! “Energy” is obvious, and easy to see, “Effort” is far more subtle, and harder to recognise, but both require the same amount of physical commitment and mental strength when tackled properly.

To extract the most from your workout, don’t just assume that all exercises are performed in the same manner and with the same attitude — think about what type of exercise it is, and for the best results, train accordingly.

Using both “thinking” and “doing” exercises with help to pack some quality beef (or tofu) onto your frame.


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